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Recognizing the Signs of Dehydration in Babies

What is Dehydration?

The body needs a good amount of fluids and balanced electrolytes to function properly. Diarrhea, vomiting, excessive sweating, fever, exposure to heat, insufficient fluid intake, and drinking diuretics (fluids that cause excess urination, like caffeinated sodas), can lead to loss of fluids and an imbalance of electrolytes like sodium and potassium If these fluids are not regularly replenished, you begin to see signs of dehydration.

Babies are particularly vulnerable to becoming dehydrated because they do not have the same reserves that an older child or adult has when they lose fluids. Thirst, which acts as a powerful signal to the body to replenish fluids is less helpful to a baby who is dependent on adults to get him what he needs.

For infants, dehydration can develop quickly and even become life threatening if not treated properly. As a parent, it is important to learn to recognize the signs of dehydration.

What Are Signs of Dehydration?

Signs of mild dehydration in an infant include:

  • a dry, sticky mouth
  • few or no tears when crying
  • crankiness or irritability
  • lethargy
  • no wet diapers for six hours or more

Signs of serious dehydration include:

  • dry mouth and tongue
  • dry, cool, blotchy skin
  • irritability or unusual sleepiness
  • sunken eyes, cheeks, or fontanelle
  • deep and rapid breathing
  • fast and weak pulse
  • muscle cramps or contractions

Also, if you gently pinch the skin on the back of a dehydrated child’s hand, it flattens slowly when released.

When Should You Get Help?

As soon as your child shows any signs of dehydration, consult your pediatrician. Your pediatrician will be able to determine if your child needs immediate medical attention or can be treated at home with close supervision.

Get medical attention immediately if your child:

  • seems lethargic or unarousable
  • has a high fever, is vomiting, and unable to keep down fluids
  • has bloody or black stools
  • has severe belly pain or hasn’t improved significantly over 24 hours

It’s possible your little one may need intravenous hydration (fluids delivered straight into the blood stream). Intravenous fluids are usually given in an emergency department that treats infants and children. But, if you think your baby is seriously dehydrated, go to the nearest emergency room or pediatric clinic.

Home Care for Dehydration

If your doctor recommends home treatment for dehydration, be sure to get clear instructions about what fluids to give, what foods to avoid and what, if any, medication to use. Make plans to follow up with the pediatrician if needed.

Here are a couple of guidelines for home treatment of dehydration to keep in mind:

  • Most children should continue their normal diet, including formula and breast milk. For mild dehydration, children do not need special fluids.
  • Remember, it is not safe to use adult medications, such as anti-diarrhea medicines, for children or infants.
  • For older children and infants, the best foods to give after hydration include bananas, rice, applesauce, toast, dry cereal, and potatoes.
  • Avoid all sports drinks (with high sugar and insufficient salt content) and caffeinated beverages.
  • Avoid salty broths and soups and all caffeinated beverages.
  • If your child has moderate to severe dehydration, your doctor may recommend special fluids to replace the lost electrolytes and help your child hydrate. Making hydration fluid at home can be complicated, and it is easiest to buy a pre-mixed formula, such as Pedialyte or Infalyte or a generic equivalent.
  • Unless specifically instructed by your doctor, do not prevent your child from eating if he is hungry.
  • Keep your pediatrician informed if there is any significant change in how your child is behaving, if he develops any new symptoms or if it doesn’t seem like he is improving.

Preventing Dehydration

There are three important steps to preventing dehydration:

  • First, maintain a good hydration routine for your child.
  • Second, learn how to “read” your child’s urine for signs of dehydration. Darker, more yellow urine is typically a sign of dehydration.
  • Third, recognize situations when your child may need more fluids than usual.

For an infant who is breastfeeding or on formula, your regular schedule for feeding should give your baby adequate fluids and nutrition. (A healthy infant typically has six or more wet diapers per day.) For a toddler, water or juice with all meals and snacks should provide enough fluids. A child will be better hydrated if he drinks throughout the day, rather than at one sitting.

When might your child require more fluids? It all depends on his activities, his diet, and the environment.

  • When it is hot, humid, or dry outside, drink up!
  • Air conditioning and indoor heating can also cause excess fluid to be lost through the skin. (For example, the circulated air on an airplane, as well as altitude changes, commonly causes dehydration.)
  • When your child is exerting himself in a particular activity.
  • When you child has a fever, is congested, or has diarrhea or vomiting.

So, learn to recognize the early signs of dehydration, and act quickly if your child becomes dry. Remember, the best solution to preventing dehydration at any age is simple: Drink water.

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